Later Changes In The Enlightenment
David Hume (1711-1776) was a the main figurehead of the skeptic movement, and would spend a great deal of his time trying to find the limits of human knowledge and reasoning. He would not be very popular during his own era though, because his work was so complicated that most people ignored it because they didn’t understand it. In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) he would question whether our senses could be used to understand the world around us. In this he would also take a different stance on the idea of morals, claiming that anything that was reasonable should be seen as moral also. He would use the same belief system in analyzing science and religion, claiming that neither could fully explain the important issues of humanity and are both incomplete for this reason. He did, however, believe that science was the more logical of the two, but couldn’t follow it completely because it would never be absolutely correct.
The most well known promoter of romanticism was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who spent much of his life trying to develop the key ideas of the movement. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) he believed that people were good by nature, but that society had corrupted them over time. To explain this, he examined early nomadic societies and compared them to
His most well-known work would be The Social Contract (1762) in which he describes what he believes would be the perfect political system, which he admits is a fantasy. Like Locke he believes that people should try to obtain their dreams but must compromise at times also. His society would only have laws because we had lost ours over the years, so individuals could only be free to give up their natural rights and enter into a social contract with another group. The only way government might work is if the people run it, despite the fact that he was skeptical of the idea of the majority always being right. The job of the government would be to secure freedom, equality and justice for all people, even if this was unpopular with the majority.
Rousseau’s legacy is quite interesting due to the fact that later generations ignored the fact that he claimed his political writings were “pure fantasy” and would not work in practice, instead advocating a more moderate government in reality. Ironically, he would become the poster child for radical left wing beliefs in the successive generations because they wanted to truly create the society he explained. His attacks on inequality and societies based on private property would end up as the main inspiration of the French Revolution and communism as time progressed. For this reason, he is among the most important enlightenment thinkers, even though many people hold negative views of his impact on later years.